The NFL's most intense position battles

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August 26th, 2020

Now that full-pad practices are permitted, NFL coaches are scrambling to finalize depth charts.

Teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, who experienced minor turnover on offense, should march confidently toward Week 1. Other franchises who hoped to rebuild in 2020 have been hampered by an irregular offseason that limited practices and organized team activities.

There isn't much time left to decide who will play where, with the season kickoff set for Sept. 10. Let’s examine five of the most competitive position battles in the 2020 offseason.

The Patriots' QB conundrum

After Tom Brady departed for Tampa Bay, the focus shifted to second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who hardly looked like the second-coming of the G.O.A.T. in brief regular-season action.

Even so, New England’s players and staff seemed high on the former fourth-round pick, until the Pats made a splash with the signing of 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton.

On Aug. 21, NFL Network’s Michael Giardi reported that Newton saw significantly more reps than Stidham at practice, but none of the quarterbacks, including backup Brian Hoyer, stood out as superior.

NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport later reported that Stidham had been suffering from a hip injury, which kept him from full participation at practice.

Newton is winning this battle, if only because he is healthier than the younger, greener quarterback. But Stidham has also been struggling with interceptions in practice, something he experienced in game action last season.

The Bears' QB dilemma

Perhaps the most intriguing quarterback battle can be found in Chicago, where fourth-year starter Mitch Trubisky might lose his job.

According to Adam Hoge of NBC Sports, Trubisky didn’t help his case in Tuesday’s practice. The quarterback let at least six passes get away from him and tossed his first interception of training camp.

His main competition, Nick Foles, got picked off once in yesterday’s practice, too, but looked far more accurate.

Another thing going for Foles is his connection with head coach Matt Nagy, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, all of whom he worked with earlier in his career.

However, Bryan Perez of NBC Sports Chicago reported that Nagy sees Foles at a disadvantage because of the abbreviated offseason.

This QB competition is still wide open, although former Bears coach Dave Wannstedt believes Foles’ role is to push Trubisky to become better.

That may be true, but if Trubisky comes out flailing, like he did last season, Foles will step right in as the starter by midseason.

The Rams' running back by committee

The Todd Gurley injury saga has ended in Los Angeles.

The oft-injured Rams lead back signed with Atlanta, which leaves Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson, and rookie Cam Akers to split carries.

Brown racked up 255 yards and five touchdowns on 69 carries last season in Los Angeles, while Henderson put up 147 yards on 39 attempts as a rookie.

Then there’s Akers, who rushed for 1,144 yards and 14 scores last season at Florida State. Considering the Rams used a second-round pick on Akers, he should be the frontrunner to get the bulk of carries.

Nonetheless, Akers hasn’t had much time to acclimate to pro competition during the shortened offseason, and the Rams seem content to employ a committee approach.

That plan hit a snag Saturday, when a mild hamstring injury sidelined Henderson.

In Saturday’s scrimmage, Brown got the first carries. Akers stumbled and lost the ball when confronted by Aaron Donald.

There isn’t a ton of certainty surrounding this group, and not much time to figure it out before their date with the Cowboys on Sept. 13.

The Cowboys' cornerback carousel

Speaking of Dallas, the Boys are undergoing a makeover on defense. One of the key departures this offseason was cornerback Byron Jones, who signed a deal in Miami.

Corner Chidobe Awuzie is expected to remain on the right side, but Jones’ former role is being contested by a handful of players.

Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, Daryl Worley, and rookies Trevon Diggs (Alabama) and Reggie Robinson II (Tulsa) are all in the running.

On Tuesday, Awuzie tweaked his knee, which presented Diggs more opportunity to showcase his talent in practice. He, along with Robinson, Brown, and Worley all flashed promise. Lewis sat with an ankle sprain.

There’s a chance Worley could play somewhere other than corner, and Robinson could shift to safety.

The good news for Dallas is they possess an assortment of talent, no matter which direction they decide to go.

The Bucs' tight end trio

Once Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement to join Brady in Tampa, NFL fans began reminiscing about the Brady-Gronk connection of the past.

But while the 6-foot-6 tight end creates a mismatch for defenses, he spent an entire year away from football and training.

If Gronk isn’t up to speed, there are two other gifted options at tight end. Cameron Brate gained 311 yards and four touchdowns in 2019. O.J. Howard added 459 yards and one score, but underwhelmed for the most part.  

Expect to see more 12 personnel this season, which the Bucs already utilized on 20% of snaps in 2019. The question is, which tight end will Brady throw to most?

Earlier this week, Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians said Gronk looked like his former Pro Bowl-caliber self, while Gronkowski admitted it took some time to shake off the rust.

Should the injury-prone athlete jump out to a great start, he may still see limited snaps to maintain his health.

As for Brate and Howard, both are capable of excelling in this refurbished offense, which also features two Pro Bowl wide receivers, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.

This will be a dangerous unit, no matter who is catching passes.

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